May 30, 2002
UNPROTECTED PEOPLE: Stories of
people who have suffered or died from vaccine-preventable diseases
THE LAUGHTER OF OUR HEARTS:
LOSING A TEEN TO A VACCINE-PREVENTABLE DISEASE
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May 30, 2002
UNPROTECTED PEOPLE #46: "THE LAUGHTER OF OUR HEARTS: LOSING
A TEEN TO A VACCINE-PREVENTABLE DISEASE"
The Immunization Action Coalition (IAC) publishes stories
of people who have suffered or died from
vaccine-preventable diseases and occasionally devotes an IAC
EXPRESS issue to such a story. This is the
46th story in our series, but unfortunately, it is
not our first story about meningococcal meningitis
in a college student. This
story is a moving testimonial by a parent whose unvaccinated
son became ill and died--all within one
"The Laughter of Our Hearts: Losing a Teen to a Vaccine-Preventable Disease"
was written by Mike Kepferle, founder
of the nonprofit Meningitis Prevention and Awareness
Children's Trust (MPACT), on the Web
It is republished here by permission of ShotClock, the
newsletter of the Massachusetts Chapter of
the American Academy of Pediatrics Immunization Initiative, where it
appeared in the Winter 2002 issue.
Joseph Patrick Kepferle, our oldest son, left us suddenly
on March 5, 2000. Patrick's smile and
charisma lit every room he entered. He was a
natural actor and comedian--intelligent, witty, daring, and
restless. He continually challenged us to
question our complacency and seek greater visions
of what truly could be. Poetic, selfless,
caring, and athletic, he captured the imagination of his
friends, pushed the limits of his world, and injected his
carefree, often irreverent spirit into all facets of our
too many other children in this country, our Pat died
in less than 24 hours from a vaccine-preventable killer, meningococcal meningitis. The
summer before Pat started college, we received
information on meningitis in his college
paperwork. It probably said something about
considering a meningitis vaccination even
though there seemed to be little or no concern
about the disease. Nonetheless, at his pre-college
physical and immunization updates, we asked for
the meningitis vaccine. We were told
none was available there, but we were not concerned.
Meningitis was supposedly a "rare"
disease, and the vaccine wasn't on the CDC or
state "required" list. So, we were lulled into a
false sense of security.
When Pat started school, we reminded him to get his
vaccination, and assured him we would cover the
cost of about $70. He promised he'd get the
immunization. But college life was hectic, and it
wasn't his top priority.
Our nightmare began the first Sunday night in March when an
emergency room doctor contacted us. Pat had
been brought in by friends and was extremely sick.
The doctor wasn't sure what Pat had and
mentioned a rash spreading on his body. We
should, he said, come as soon as possible.
We could not fathom what awaited us at the hospital. Pat's
college friends filled the hallway as we
rushed in. When I saw the priest in the critical
care unit, where a nurse finally had taken us, I
knew that things weren't good.
Although the team was still working on him, Pat was gone.
The doctors let us touch his head and tell
him how much we loved him. Our hearts were broken;
we had lost our Pat, the laughter
of our hearts. . . .
I have searched my soul for what we could have done to save
our son. The answer seems simple--ensure that he was
vaccinated. But is it? Until weeks after Pat's death I
couldn't even pronounce meningococcal
meningitis, and I didn't understand the issues
related to it, such as the effectiveness or
the limitations of the vaccine. I couldn't
comprehend that a disease primarily associated with
developing countries in Africa could kill a
strong, athletic person like my son here in our
country. I believed in the
myth of American medical infallibility. I didn't
realize how many high school and college students have
been maimed or killed by meningitis until I
reached out to other parents.
Trying to find out why and how I lost my son, I found that
many medical personnel know little about
meningitis and that much of the information
provided to the public is technically accurate but
downplaying the seriousness of the disease and underscoring
the rarity of complications. Some health
professionals warned that getting the vaccine
would provide a "false sense of security"
since it "only" protected against the A, C,
Y, and W135 strains and not the B serogroup.
Raising awareness among parents and medical professionals
has been challenging. I contend that a
shield against four out of five of the major
strains is better than nothing at all.
Fortunately, recent studies have helped highlight
the dangers in the college environment and the
growing incidence of meningitis
among all teens.
The week after Pat died, the Maryland legislature
overwhelmingly passed ground-breaking legislation
requiring incoming Maryland college dorm students
to be vaccinated or sign a waiver declining the
vaccine. Since then, several more states
have passed similar laws, most recently in
California. [Editor's Note: The California law
requires that colleges and universities inform
students about meningococcal vaccine and document
that that they have done so.] I have talked to
many parents who have lost children to meningitis.
We want everyone to know the human impact of this "rare" disease.
We all desperately want other parents to
know that the tragedy we endured could have been
Pat's laughter is gone, but his presence is all around us.
He and all the other victims compel me to write
again and again that vaccination and
education are the best protection against this
To read a first-person account of meningococcal meningitis
by a college student who survived it, go to:
To see other IAC Unprotected People stories in either HTML
or camera-ready (PDF) format, go to:
For more information on meningitis and meningococcal
vaccine, see IAC's Meningococcal Information
web page at:
DISCLAIMER: The Immunization Action Coalition (IAC)
publishes Unprotected People stories for the
purpose of making them available for our
readers' review. We have not verified this story's
content, for which the authors are
DO YOU KNOW OF STORIES OF UNPROTECTED PEOPLE? Please let us
know if you have personal stories of people who have
suffered or died from vaccine-preventable
diseases or if you know of
stories that have appeared in the media
describing suffering that occurred because someone was not
immunized. Send your stories or case reports to IAC Express
by email to
firstname.lastname@example.org or by fax to (651)